Is a “Thank You” too much to ask?

Is a “Thank You” too much to ask? 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

I’m a fan of the This American Life podcast. I rarely miss an episode.

In a recent episode titled “Essential,” they talk to a series of people whose jobs were deemed essential during the pandemic about how their experience working through COVID changed them.

As I listened, hearing these stories really reminded me of the importance of the work we do.

It also reminded me again of something I’ve tried to keep top of mind through the pandemic. We are all having very different experiences of this pandemic that are shaped by a lot of factors, including our jobs, our circumstances, and where we live.

There’s been so much emphasis on remote work, but the majority of employees haven’t had the luxury of working from home. They’ve had to show up to work in person every day. Some of them never got the choice to do otherwise because their job was deemed “essential.”

When you think of essential workers, you probably think of healthcare and first responders. They were at the very literal front lines of the pandemic fight.

There are also millions of people working in retail, production, manufacturing, food service, transportation, and so many other roles who also have had to show up each day in the face of significant risk.

The podcast explores their stories.

What these stories reveal should be a stark reminder for us as managers and leaders about our role and responsibility to our people. It boils down to a pretty simple truth.

The Experience of Being “Essential” 

Let me share a few quotes from the people interviewed for the podcast that really hit me hard.

This first quote is from a woman named Shelly Ortiz who was a restaurant server in Arizona when COVID hit. In Arizona, restaurant workers were deemed essential by the state so she either had to come to work or quit her job.

She talks about how the experience of working during COVID changed how she felt about her job. Her story also reveals the really terrible treatment that servers, specifically a female server in this case, are forced to endure from customers.

The pandemic apparently dialed up the intensity. Here’s how she described her experience with one customer.

“And it was just a reminder that like, I am not a human to her. I have never been a person to her. I am just someone out of her world that doesn’t deserve to be treated like a human being.”

I feel really fortunate that I’ve never been made to feel like this at work. Hopefully you’ve been as lucky.

While there’s a lot we could talk about in this story, it’s a reminder to me of the importance of treating everyone everywhere with kindness.

It’s also a reminder that the people who we pay the least in our organizations are often doing the hardest and most punishing work. They need more care and support from us.

This brings me to the second story I wanted to share with you from the podcast. It’s about Flato Alexander, a 61-year-old breakfast cook at a McDonald’s in Michigan.

The Unexpected Impact of Thank You Meals

Like Shelly, Flato never stopped working during the pandemic. He had worked in his job for years, and he enjoyed it. But things changed during the pandemic.

In this story, Flato shares his experience when McDonald’s announced in the spring of 2020 that they would give free egg McMuffin sandwiches to essential workers. They called them “Thank You Meals.” Overall, McDonald’s gave away 12 million free sandwiches.

You may or may not remember this. I didn’t. From the outside looking it, it seems like a really nice thing to do.

But, here is Flato sharing his take on it.

“They was giving it–giving free food away. If you got the audacity to waste millions of dollars on giving somebody some food, take some of that money and make a difference with one of us. You making a difference with other people, but you still ignoring your workers. So I didn’t understand it. I guess that was probably one of their shareholders meeting to come up with that idea.

“You scratching your head like, wow. No appreciation gets shown towards us. Show some type of appreciation towards the ones that’s doing some work. That’s what I mean. It’s not no jealous thing; it’s common sense. It’s like a show of unconcern.”

When the interviewer (the amazing Chana Joffe-Walt) asked him what it would have meant if the ownership or management had shown some concern, this is what he said.

“It would’ve meant a lot. It would’ve been a very touching thing for somebody to let you know that they have the slightest respect for your life and your livelihood. Because not showing—a sense of unconcern to people, it’s not a good feeling. It’s like having a relative that won’t speak to you. It makes you sad.”

The Lesson Is Clear

These stories left me with a heavy heart.

What they each really wanted was the same thing: to be seen and valued.

In Shelly’s case, her customer was not only not seeing her as a fellow human being, but the customer was actually making her feel like she had no value or worth. That is perhaps the worst thing you can do to another human being.

Flato, on the other hand, just wanted to be told that he mattered. In the end, it wasn’t that he wasn’t given a free sandwich when they were giving them to other essential workers that really hurt him.

Listen to his words again. “It would’ve been a very touching thing for somebody to let you know that they have the slightest respect for your life and your livelihood.”

The slightest respect for your life and your livelihood.

That’s a pretty low bar. And the leadership at his restaurant isn’t meeting it.

Regardless of what kind of team you manage or what kind of work they do, every person on your team has the foundational need that Shelly and Flato shared.

People want to be seen. They want to know they matter. 

So here are some simple tips for how to do that.

1. Say thank you often.

Your people show up and do the work every day. And every day, there’s a little voice in their head that wonders if any of it really makes a difference. As a manager, you can make sure they know that it does. Let people know that you appreciate them. Tell them that you are glad to see them. Thank them for showing up. It seems like a small thing, but it will have a huge impact.

2. Make time to be with your people.

I’ve shared the story many times about how my daughter taught me about the importance of time. When she was 7 years old, I asked her how she knows if someone loves her. Her answer was, “They spend time with me.”

There is no more powerful way to signal to your people that they matter to you than making time to be with them. That might be through one-on-one check-ins or team huddles. It could be setting aside time to record a video to send out to each person or a personal note. Invest your time in your people and they will reward you with their loyalty and effort.

3. Be kind to everyone.

Lead with kindness and compassion. One small act of kindness can transform someone’s entire day (or week). Every time we encounter another human being, we get to make a choice about how we will show up at that moment. Choose kindness.

And for those closest to you (like those you manage), be extra kind. Give the benefit of the doubt. Take care of your people, and they will, in turn, take care of you.

It’s really that simple.

When your people know that you care about them and that they matter, everything else becomes so much easier. Make this your priority as a manager, and you’ll be well on your way to having a high-performing team.


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Jason Lauritsen